The Book Cartel

A fascinating post over at O’Reilly Radar. Peter Brantley examines the German book market, which for years has been operating as a government approved cartel:

Germany’s book culture is sustained by an age-old practice requiring all bookstores, including German online booksellers, to sell books at fixed prices. Save for old, used or damaged books, discounting in Germany is illegal.

Of course this can be seen as supporting independent bookshops, which can then afford to carry a more diverse range of stock, without the threat of Big W style price wars. Somewhat counter-intuitively is has also resulted in lower book prices (although it would be nice to find some more thorough comparative data.) Recently Swizerland (with its significant German language population) has chosen to break with tradition and allow discounting, which makes it a book market worth watching. The Swiss Competition Commissioner conceded that the change might result in a less diverse range of books. In an interview with the New York Times, he suggested:

“They said the system fosters a broader, deeper market for books, that discounting will hurt the small booksellers who support the small publishers, and then you will have fewer books and more focus on best sellers…

… But nobody can read one million titles, so the question is, is it better that more people read fewer books or that fewer people read a lot of different books?”

Brantley suggests that these are questions that still have relevance in a digital environment. Maybe, maybe not. But definitely food for thought.

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